May 23, 2006 4:00 AM PDT
Newsmaker: Superweeds, air caves and the future of energySee all Newsmakers
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Well, that would be very bad for Northern Europe. England is the same latitude as Calgary, Canada. They have very different weather. They would have a freeze in London. England, Germany, France, Scandinavian countries will be frozen.
But here is another thing, which would be more likely. Think about our water supplies, especially in California. We supply roughly 20 percent of the agriculture in the United States. Virtually all of it is irrigated. It's not like the Midwest where it rains. Guess what? Most of the water storage is in the soil. So, this is going to be threatened.
If the temperatures go up by 3 or 5 degrees centigrade in the Midwest, then the agriculture machine in the Midwest is going to be threatened.
Now, is it a 99 percent certainty these things are going to happen? Probably not, but is there a 50 percent chance? Given the consequences, you've got to do something about it.
When you look at the alternatives to coal, oil and gas, the one that gets mentioned the most is solar. Do you think it will become one of the primary sources of energy?
Chu: I think in the long run it can be. In the short run, in the next 10 or 20 years, it won't be probably. Somehow we need some short-term solutions to tide us over. Solar means several things. Wind is solar as far as I'm concerned. Ultimately, solar energy makes wind. Wind can be maybe a 5 to 10 percent effect. But we need to figure out better ways of storing the wind energy. The wind doesn't blow all the time. You've got to be able to store it.
How about converting solar energy into chemical energy?
Chu: From what I now know, it's not going to be as efficient as compressed air, but it is a much more valuable form of energy, especially in the form of a liquid fuel. Liquid means it has a very high density. Gasoline is incredibly dense in terms of the energy per volume or weight.
As we begin to run out of oil, and as the rest of the world clamors for more oil, there is going to be a real supply/demand problem. In the United States, we need to do this for many reasons. There is a huge balance-of-trade issue. There is the fact that we're buying oil from a lot of people who don't like it and some of that money--like it or not--does funnel to people who really don't like us.
I think it (oil) governs our international policy. It's related to the need to have a large number of aircraft carriers and things like that. It's not a deep dark secret.
China is modernizing its army because it has learned from the U.S. that you need military presence just to ensure access to energy. Just to have the presence--not whether you're going to use it or not--sometimes gets you a long way. I gave a talk in Beijing, and I said that to a bunch of finance ministers. They all nodded their heads.
How promising are biofuels?
Chu: We have great agriculture capacity. We have roughly 450 million acres that are either under cultivation or that we pay farmers not to cultivate. Roughly in the last five or eight years, we've spent $20 billion in agricultural subsidies to grow commodity crops: corn, soybeans and things like that. We no longer can sell our cotton in the world market because it's too heavily subsidized.
Realistically, will the agricultural subsidies go away in the next couple of years? No. Over 30-plus states consider themselves agriculture states. So let's pay them to grow energy. But let's make it sensible. See if we can figure out how to grow the most rapidly growing plants. Ideally they will be self-fertilizing; some plants are naturally self-fertilizing.
You mentioned switchgrass in one of your papers. Is that one of the candidates?
Chu: That's a candidate for a good start. Switchgrass doesn't require as much fertilizer. It's not as water intensive. But we can even develop better plants. Agriculture has been a miracle in this last century. The population has tripled or something like that. And the amount of land under cultivation went up by 10 percent or 15 percent.
If you think about it, the plants we eat now are a very distant cousin--and sometimes didn't even really have distant cousins--from what you find in the wild. Most of what we eat in plants are things involved in plant reproduction. If you think of corn, if you think about soybeans, the things we eat are seeds. What we did is, we fundamentally cultivated these plants to become sex fiends, to spend a lot of energy unnecessarily on reproduction.
So, we can do the same with energy. We can turn plants into growing more of something we can then convert into energy. So it's time to start from a blank sheet of paper, the way we did 5,000, 10,000 years ago.
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